Saturday, March 28, 2015

Soyuz Launch to ISS Reinforces Expedition 43

Soyuz Launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Another crew for the ISS lifted off yesterday after midnight in Kazakhstan. Soyuz mission TMA-16M (NASA designation Soyuz 42- or is it the other way around?) lifted off at 1:42 p.m. MDT, carrying Soyuz commander cosmonaut Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko (both from Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency), and astronaut Scott Kelly. They docked with the space station about 6 hours later.

Crew of TMA-16M (L-R): Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka, Mikhail Kornienko in front of Soyuz training simulator in Star City.

Currently on board the station are Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts (NASA), and Flight Engineers Samantha Cristoforetti (ESA) and Anton Shkaplerov (Roscosmos). When they return home in May, Gannady Padalka will become the next Expedition commander. While he will himself leave the station some time in September, Kelly and Kornienko will remain on board as part of a special project studying the effects of living in space for one entire year.

Already at the station: another Soyuz (closer to camera) and a Progress resupply ship.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

50 Years Ago: Ranger IX Crashes into the Moon

Last of the Ranger probes, Ranger IX.

Quickly following the successful flight of Gemini 3 the day before, NASA scientists were busy crashing a probe into the lunar surface - on purpose. Ranger IX was the last in the Ranger series of Lunar Exploration probes designed to give scientists close up video and pictures of potential landing sites. On March 24, a final use of thrusters precisely tilted the spacecraft for maximum camera use and the craft plunged to its impact site in the crater Alphonsus. The speed of the crash was at about 8,800 feet per second.

Ranger image of the floor of the crater Alphonsus before impact.

Monday, March 23, 2015

50 Years Ago: First Manned Gemini Mission Blasts Off

Gemini 3 crews (L-R): John Young, Gus Grissom, and backup crew Wally Schirra, Tom Stafford.

Fifty Years ago the first manned flight of a Gemini spacecraft lifted off from Launch Complex 19 on the Cape Kennedy installation. Astronauts Gus Grissom (who flew on Mercury's second sub-orbital flight) and rookie astronaut John Young rode the spacecraft perched on the Titan II rocket. The 4 hour 52 minute flight lifted off at 9:24 am Eastern time on March 23 and the Gemini spacecraft successfully entered orbit. 

The gantry lowers into firing position.

Titan II missile lifts off from the pad carrying the GT-3 capsule and crew.

Th 3-orbit mission was designed to test the flying capabilities of the Gemini spacecraft. Besides a thorough checkout of the life support and operational systems, the crew was to test their ability to change orbital levels, maneuver, and manually control their descent to a splashdown location. All parameters were successful, although they did end up about 80 miles from their expected landing position.

View of a Gemini mission lifting off from LC-19.

During the flight, it turned out that the playful John Young had snuck a corned-beef sandwich onto the capsule. During the flight, he surprised Grissom with a sandwich he pulled out from his flight suit. Each astronaut took a bite, then stowed the sandwich away. Mission controllers were later upset, worried that crumbs might have gotten into the flight controls and endangered the mission.

There was also a slight thruster problem, in that a left yaw variation kept occurring. This was later traced to a venting water boiler. This problem would have dire consequences in a later Gemini flight.

After splashdown, the crew moved into rafts once Navy divers secured the craft and helicopters arrived to remove the crew.

Once safely returned to Earth, the crew had to wait a half hour longer than expected while the recovery ship USS Intrepid moved to their location. Considering the loss of the Mercury capsule earlier, Grissom and Young decided not to open the hatches until the recovery divers had arrived.

The empty capsule about to be hoisted aboard USS Intrepid.

With the completion of GT-3, the Russians seemed to still be ahead - they had already had a three-man mission (Voskhod 1), and their two-man mission (Voskhod2) had completed an EVA as well. For NASA, however, it was the first flight of an American two-manned craft, and the first re-entry of a manned capsule where the crew could change their splashdown site. NASA was ready to begin the long series of Gemini test missions which would prepare crews for the Apollo program. 

The Gemini 3 capsule was preserved, and today can be seen at the Grissom Memorial in Mitchell, Indiana.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

50 Years Ago: Soviet Cosmonaut Walks in Space

Hero of the Soviet Union Alexei Leonov.

Fifty years ago on March 18, 1965 the Soviet Union again pulled ahead of the United States in the Great Space Race. From Baikonur in the province of Kazakhstan, a forerunner of the Soyuz rocket lifted off carrying the two-man Voskhod 2 capsule. Aboard the spacecraft were cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Commander Pavel Belyayev. The Voskhod 2 had been modified for this flight with the addition of a special airlock in preparation for the first EVA, or Extra-Vehicular-Activity (spacewalk).

Comparison of the Voskhod 1 and version 2 with undeployed airlock.

Once the spacecraft reached orbit, the special airlock was inflated so that the outer hatch was moved a distance from the descent module. In the EVA plan, a cosmonaut would pressurize the extended airlock, then enter the airlock, named Volga. The hatch to the cabin would then be closed, and the airlock depressurized. This was necessary because the Voskhod controls and avionics were air-cooled, and would not function properly if the cabin were depressurized.

Illustration of the EVA elements.

In the actual event, post-flight statements from the Soviet government that the EVA went perfectly turned out not to be true. After leaving the airlock, Leonov floated to the end of his umbilical hose, and his pressure suit began to "balloon" and stiffen due to over pressurization. Finding it very difficult to move freely, he was unable to activate a switch on his suit that would allow him to take pictures from a chest-mounted camera. He was also unable to control his movements enough to retrieve an exterior-mounted camera recording his EVA. After 12 minutes he finally managed to re-enter the airlock, but had entered head-first, not according to procedure. He became stuck trying to turn around, and finally solved the problem by risking "the bends" by lowering his suit pressure so that he could bend. Supposedly, Leonov could have been ejected with the airlock if he could not recover and the commander would return alone. The EVA was so difficult that doctors later reported that Leonov could have suffered from heatstroke, and he admitted later that he was sweating profusely so much that water "sloshed" in his spacesuit. Fortunately, he did manage to return, repressurize the airlock, and then re-enter the cabin.

Leonov outside the airlock entrance.

Before re-entry, the airlock was jettisoned. Unlike the earlier Vostok capsules, the Voskhod had no escape method and so instead of parachuting to ground after re-entry, the crew would ride the descent module to a harder landing with retro-rockets just before touchdown. The crew did land safely despite a problem with the descent module not separating cleanly from the service and instrument sections. They landed in the Ural mountains area so far from their rescue teams that they had to spend the night in their capsule, while wolves were heard outside.

Leonov, second from right, in Salt Lake City in 2005.

These days, Alexei Leonov is a great promoter of space exploration, a businessman, and is an artist as well. In 2005 he attended the XIX COngress of the Association of Space Explorers held in Salt Lake CIty, UT. As part of the ceremonies, our Space Center staff was able to participate and later meet with the astronauts from around the world. I took the picture above of Leonov standing with cosmonauts from the former Soviet Union, and of course I got his autograph.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

50 Years Ago: Asset Lost at Sea and an Atlas Rocket Explodes

Back on February 23, 1965 the United States Air Force lost one of its Assets. Literally. As part of Project Asset, the US Air Force was testing the heat shield part of the cancelled DynaSoar X-20 program. Realizing that the data on glider re-entry would still be valuable, the ASSET program continued and the information would later be used to help design the Space Shuttle.

The Asset launches used pad 17B on Cape Canaveral, and were planned to arc out over the Atlantic and have the glider test craft recovered for analysis. ASV-1, launched on a Thor rocket, succeeded in re-entry and landing in the ocean, but it's recovery system malfunctioned and it sank and was lost. Remaining missions used a Thor-Delta rocket configuration using a second stage to propel the craft on a steeper re-entry path. The second launch was also a disaster, the second stage malfunctioned and the craft was self-destructed in flight. ASSET 3 was a success, and the craft recovered and is preserved in the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH. The other flights were also lost at sea after successful flights but failures in recovery. ASV-6, occurring 50 years ago, was the end of the program.

Pictures by Ed Hengeveld.

Within a few weeks of the ASV-6 failure, there was another disaster at the Cape. Two seconds after ignition on Pad 36B, an Atlas-Centaur rocket carrying a dummy test Surveyor spacecraft, exploded into a fireball. A fuel valve shut off at ignition, causing 2 of 3 engines to fail. The rocket collapsed back onto the launchpad, having only risen three feet. It then tipped over and exploded onto the ground. No one was hurt and the damage was estimate at $5 million.

Atlas-Centaur 5 on Pad 36B.

Flames surround the rocket as it settles back onto the pad.

The explosion engulfs the tower as well.

More distant view of the explosion.

Wreckage at the site.


50 Years Ago: GT-3 Gets its Name

One version of the GT-3 mission patch design.

With less than a week to go before launch, astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young officially designated their upcoming flight spacecraft as "Gemini 3" and "Molly Brown." During Grissom's last flight, a sub-orbital mission launched on a Redstone rocket, disaster struck as the crew hatch explosive bolts accidentally ignited, blowing the hatch off the spacecraft and allowing seawater to flood the spacecraft. Despite heroic efforts, the recovery team could not save the ship and it sank to the Atlantic seafloor. Just barely escaping the capsule, Grissom's suit began to fill with water as well but he was successfully hoisted into the hovering helicopter. At first blamed for a possible pilot error by some in the press, Grissom was cleared by an investigation. As commander of the first manned flight of the Gemini program, Grissom and Young decided to name the craft after the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, a flamboyant and popular rich American woman who was one of the survivors of the Titanic sinking in 1912. 

Molly Brown.

Evidently the name was intended to be "good luck" and an assurance that THIS spacecraft was not about to be lost under Grissom's command.

Commemorative medallion, front and back, and carried aboard the flight.

Interestingly, the design was not made as a patch at first. No mission patch was worn by the crew, as would be made popular in later flights. The design was made into several medallions that were taken on the flight and later given to family members of the astronauts. After the flight, a patch design was created to go along with other Gemini mission patches.

 Finalized mission patch.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Expedition 42 Returns to Earth

The Soyuz TMA-14M descent module floats down to a landing in Kazakhstan.

Expedition 42 came to an end this week, and Expedition 43 has begun. On Tuesday March 10, Expedition 42 commander Barry Wilmore gave command of the space station to Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts in a change of command ceremony. Astronaut Wilmore, Soyuz commander Alexander Samokutyaev, and cosmonaut Elena Serova undocked the Soyuz spacecraft from the ISS at 6:44 pm Eastern on Wednesday. They maneuvered their craft into a re-entry position and began to enter the Earth's atmosphere, touching down in the snowy fields of Kazakhstan at 10:07 pm Eastern. Unexpectedly, during the return, the spacecraft lost communications contact with ground flight controllers once the parachute had deployed.  

Rocket Rumbles in the Utah Desert

The 5-segment SRB ignites. NASA TV.

Another step has been taken in the development of the NASA SLS rocket system. On March 11, Orbital ATK successfully tested the new version of the 5-segment Solid Rocket Booster which will be part of NASA's new giant rocket. For two minutes, the booster shot superheated gas and exhaust out over the desert while officials and visitors some distance away shook from the shockwaves.

The enormous plume of fire gives an idea of the power of just one booster.

Originally Thiokol, then ATK, the company that built the SRBs for the space shuttle has been working to include the system in the future of American spaceflight. Planned for the Ares-1 rocket system, the new 5-segment booster (the shuttle used two 4-segment SRBs) would have been designated the first stage of the Ares-1. A successful test of the Ares-1 occurred in 2009. However, with rising costs, the Obama Administration cancelled the program. Too bad, because according to the proposed schedule the Ares-1 would be flying by next year. The new SLS rocket is not planned to lift astronauts until after 2020.

Planned development of the Ares-1.

When NASA began working with the Commercial Development of manned rockets, ATK joined with Astrium to develop the Liberty rocket to compete with submitted plans by Boeing, SpaceX, and several other companies. Liberty would have been similar to the Ares-1 and also would use the 5-segment motor. Unfortunately for ATK, NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX for further development, even though ATK had already done initial testing with the Ares rocket. Again, too bad, as the plan would have had the system flying by now.

ATK illustration of Liberty launch.

Fortunately for the company the new NASA design for the giant SLS rocket included two SRBs for the first stage launch. The 5-segment motor would therefor be used in missions designed to lift heavy items into orbit and for missions that would eventually go to Mars. Recently, the company has completed a merger with Orbital Sciences, maker of the Antares rocket, the Pegasus sub-rbital rocket, and the Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Now named Orbital-ATK, the company needs to complete one more test firing of the booster before it is ready to begin shipping to the Kennedy Space Center for the first launch tests.

Planned development of the SLS rocket family.

During the test firing, the booster produced 3.6 million pounds of thrust. 102 design objectives were met by the success of the test. Temperatures inside the booster reached 5,600 degrees. Now THAT is a great piece of engineering.

All done! Water is sprayed into the motor to cool it down for post-test analysis.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

50 Years Ago: Ranger Probes Explore the Moon

Ranger 8 launch from Cape Canaveral.

Fifty years ago on February 17, 1965, NASA launched the latest in its series of Ranger-class lunar probes. Ranger 8 blasted off from Cape Canaveral's LC-12 pad on an Atlas-Agena rocket, reaching Earth orbit at 185 kilometers altitude. The Agena second stage ignited and sent the Ranger 8 space probe on its way to the Moon on a course to reach the Lunar surface on February 20. The ranger series was designed to take as many pictures of the lunar surface as it could manage, and transmit them to the Earth before crashing into the surface.

Diagram of the Ranger block III spacecraft.

The Ranger probe was powered by twin solar panels throughout its journey. It made a mid-course correction using hydrazine thrusters. SIx cameras were carried on board, each with their own control system and transmitter for rapid transfer to Earth. Before it crashed, the cameras sent back 7,137 pictures before impact on the surface. The pictures were used by NASA to help plan future lunar landings for the Apollo program, including the first close-up pictures of the Apollo 11 landing site.

Picture of lunar surface from Ranger 8.

One more Ranger was planned in the program, for a launch a few weeks later in March.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

EVAs prepare ISS for changes

Is there any job better than this?

In the last month, American astronauts aboard the International SPace Station have conducted three spacewalks preparing the ISS for future module changes. With the expansion of commercial programs to include manned ferry missions from Earth to the ISS, some of the modules on the station need to be moved in order to provide better docking positions. The current placement of the modules benefitted the docking of the US space shuttles, but as only one shuttle docked at a time, the new arrangement must allow for the docking of multiple spacecraft. In each manned flight, the craft must be useable as emergency escape vessels. That means there would be no time in an emergency to use the robotic arm for positioning and cable hookups, the way that it's done now with robotic cargo ships.

Astronaut Barry Wilmore connects cables on the Harmony module.

The first of the series of three spacewalks by Expedition 42 took place on February 21. Astronauts Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts spent 6 hours and 41 minutes outside in space, during which they rerouted cables on the US-built Harmony module and the Pressurized Mating Adapter 2. Designated EVA-29, the spacewalk was successful and the astronauts prepared for the next step.

Astronaut Terry Virts rides the robotic arm into position.

The second spacewalk, EVA-30 took places days later on February 25th. The main goal was to rout power cables and prepare the PMA-2 for installation later this year of mating adapters, which will be delivered by the Dragon spacecraft. The astronauts got ahead of the schedule, and used the extra time to start preparations for the next spacewalk. However, during the spacewalk, Terry Virts encountered a problem - water was leaking into his space helmet. Engineers noticed it during the beginning of the EVA as Virts left the airlock, but since it was very small (not anywhere near the amount of water that endangered astronaut Luca Parmitano in 2013) they continued the EVA and kept a close watch on the problem. Virts was able to detect some of the water leak by the end of the spacewalk, but managed to complete the EVA and return inside without any problem.

Astronaut Wilmore during the recent EVA. You can see part of a docked Soyuz spacecraft in the upper right of the image.

EVA-31 took place on March 1st. The objective this time was to install new antennas for the new C2V2 communications system and connect more wiring. The new comms system will be used for astronauts in docking spacecraft to talk with station crewmembers and ground controllers, and is an advanced system compared to the shuttle-era High Frequency setup. The antennas and about 400 feet of cabling were installed in 5 hours and 38 minutes - over an hour earlier than had been planned. Great job of planning and executing their tasks enabled them to return early. There was also no further problem with water in Virts' helmet.

You can read detailed accounts of the spacewalks, with more pictures, on the pages at NASA at:

With the successful conclusion of the three EVAs, Expedition 42 gets ready to conclude. Tuesday March 10th will see a change of command ceremony as Barry Wilmore (USA), Alexander Samokutyaev (Russia) and Elena Serova ( Russia) prepare to leave the ISS and return to Earth.

It's not all work on the ISS. Here, astronaut Terry Virts and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti play with their food before eating a snack.

A moment of reflection. Samantha Cristoforetti (ESA) pays tribute to the passing of legendary Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy by making the Vulcan hand gesture for "Live Long and Prosper." She is wearing her Star Trek shirt pin which she brought aboard the station, of course not knowing that Nimoy would pass away during her stay. Now there's a Star Trek fan.